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12 December 2000 - AFP

Estrada to file lawsuit against German magazine

MANILA, Dec 12 (AFP) - Philippine President Joseph Estrada has ordered his lawyers to file a lawsuit against a German magazine which reported he pocketed millions of dollars in ransom to secure westerners abducted by Muslim extremists, the presidential palace said Monday.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that German secret police had tapped mobile phone conversations via satellite between top Philippine negotiator Roberto Aventajado and the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist group.

Der Spiegel quoted police as saying that Estrada and Aventajado took 40 percent and 10 percent respectively from a 20 million dollar ransom payment for the freedom of unnamed hostages seized by the rebels earlier this year.

The president has "ordered his laywers to file a lawsuit" for libel against Der Speigel, the statement said, although it did not say when it would be formalized.

"He feels that this is a false report given publicity unduly in Germany using German Secret Service sources," the statement quoted Press Secretary Ronaldo Puno as saying.

Puno said Estrada was "really upset by this report" which also came amid his corruption trial at the Senate which could lead to his removal from office.

Estrada has also asked Philippine ambassador to Germany Jose Zaide to look into the report, but he does not intend to make a diplomatic row on the issue, Puno said.

"The German government can confirm or deny it, but only to that extent. There is no intention to make it a diplomatic incident," Puno said.

Puno said "there is no truth to these such tapes. If that tape exists, Der Spiegel should produce that."

Aventajado also rejected allegations and threatened to sue the publication for libel.

Estrada's chief of staff, Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora, said Monday the Philippine government had sent two police officers to Europe to help German intelligence translate the transcribed exchange.

"They brought back the transcripts and nowhere in these transcripts did these allegations come up," Zamora said in an interview with radio station DZMM.

The Abu Sayyaf abducted 21 Asian and European hostages in April from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan. The rebels were reported to have received huge ransom payments for the release of some of the group.

More hostages were abducted later and the military launched a rescue operation in September. Seventeen other hostages including two Frenchmen and three Malaysians were rescued but the rebels still hold an American and a Filipino hostage.

National police chief Panfilo Lacson said they had received copies of the supposed transcripts between Aventajado and Abu Sayyaf leader Galib Andang cited by the German weekly.

He said the document, which is in the custody of police intelligence, did not mention anything about commissions.

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